The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).
For the study, VanderMeer and colleagues combed the medical records of 2,800 people who were hospitalized with seasonal flu in 10 states during the 2007-2008 influenza season -- before the H1N1 strain caused the current swine flu pandemic. The sample of people studied is representative of people across the U.S., she says.
Of the total, 801 were taking statins for high cholesterol and continued to take them while hospitalized.
Overall, 17 (2.1%) of patients taking statins died while in the hospital or within 30 days afterward, compared with 64 (3.2%) who were not taking statins.
After taking into account other risk factors such as age and use of antiviral drugs, this corresponded to 54% lower odds of death for statin users, VanderMeer tells WebMD.
The researchers did not look at whether duration or dose of statin affected the results. But they are now analyzing the data to determine if one brand of statin is associated with better odds of surviving the flu than another.
Other research has also suggested that statins may help keep the flu virus in check by lowering inflammation and activating the immune system, VanderMeer says.
She called for studies in which some flu patients are given statins and others are not, and both groups are followed over time.
In the meantime, people with the flu shouldn't ask their doctors to prescribe statins in hopes of having a better prognosis, says the University of Utah's Andrew Pavia, MD, head of the IDSA's pandemic influenza task force.
"But if you're on statins for your cholesterol, you may be getting some extra benefit," he tells WebMD.